“I made a lot of costly mistakes in the beginning,” Alina Trigubenko, co-founder of Awarenow, said of building a distributed startup with teams spread throughout the world.

As Trigubenko and I sat down to talk about her experience growing her company, she mentioned the benefits and challenges that come along with a remote-based workforce: greater autonomy, no corporate BS, and latitude in how, where, and when to work. As she put it, everyone gets to “pick their own comfort zone” as to how they show up to work.

Articulate, a software development company, conveys a similar policy on its website: “Work where, when, and how you want. There’s no corporate office, no corporate BS. Nothing between you and your best work.” The remote-first ethos is in full display, empowering the company’s employees to show up exactly how they want, when they want, and to make their best work possible come out.

While big companies like Yahoo and IBM are calling their remote employees back to the office, startups like Zappier, Github, Buffer, Consensys, and GrooveHQ (to name a few) are pushing ahead with entirely virtual-based workforces.

What they’re finding is that it’s an open playbook of experimentation. From experimenting with no titles, to having no managers, to being entirely transparent over compensation and other information, startups are pushing the future of work into the remote space.

Keeping everyone motivated and aligned is a common challenge when scaling remote-based workforces. Distributed hierarchies of purpose, which gives individual team members a clear sense of responsibility on how their own efforts contribute to larger team goals, is a way of redefining the economics of social organization within a distributed company.

What is a distributed hierarchy of purpose?

Accommodating the fluidity of distributed companies while fulfilling the need for a hierarchy of decision-makers, distributed hierarchies of purpose balance two seemingly inapposite needs into a coherent system for scaling remote-based teams. Why is this distinction needed? Because, as Abraham Maslow once wrote in Maslow on Management, too much freedom and lack of structure in the workplace could be a bad thing:

“The fact is that a certain portion of the population cannot take responsibility well and are frightened by freedom… The fact is that an unstructured situation, a free situation, a situation in which people are thrown back on their own resources will sometimes show their lack of resources…. What this means for organization theorists is that in all their calculations in moving over to the newer style of management, they should assume that a certain proportion – as yet unknown – will not respond well to good [unstructured] conditions.”

Clear guidelines and principles help teams in distributed environments work their best, especially as startups find themselves in a liminal space where outdated systems are still needed. “What I find interesting is that we have chosen to build out our functions as a traditional company,” said Sarah Durlacher, head of ConsenSys Lab’s organizational design and development team. “We have these archaic systems as stopgaps because we don’t have something else.”

Remote-first companies often face challenges as they introduce new ideas of organization into their companies while still needing proper offices like legal and HR. In response to that realization, Durlacher mentioned, “My goal as well as my team’s goal is to basically set the operational structure for a more decentralized system while making all of our own decisions without the least amount of replication possible,” as a way of towing that line.

As companies transition to entirely remote-based workplaces, they need to replace outdated structures with ones that replicate or compliment them, even if loosely, in a virtual environment.

Distributed hierarchies of purpose have two functions:

  1. They inspire individuals to rise above their own self-imposed limitations and any self-serving agendas they may have to create mission-driven attitudes.
  2. They tap into the creative juices of multiple people at once to achieve the seemingly impossible together.

Fusing conscious capitalism principles with organizational development strategies give teams a clearer idea of how their work influences the company’s larger mission.

Building distributed hierarchies of purpose

Most companies are organized with a decision-making process that flows from the top. A distributed hierarchy of purpose modifies this model and creates self-organizing teams that converge on a singular point known as the mission axis.

Multiple teams from the same company then create a distributed hierarchy that spans multiple areas of the organization, with each team contributing equally to the overall mission.

To create this hybrid structure, companies must empower employees to take on self-organizing roles that provide process and structure that is flexible enough to meet the demands of self-organizing teams. Establishing an employee bottom-up feedback loop to inform goals, projects, and tasks, so that they are aligned with company objectives, will be key. And managers, who are used to top-down command and control, will take on coaching roles that empower employees to be autonomous while pushing project objectives ahead.

Challenges to distributed hierarchies of purpose

“Getting everyone to understand the value chain is a big struggle for managing remote teams,” said Levon Brutyan, co-founder of Collectly. “You have to push feedback and make it transparent so the engineers, [for example], know how the feature they are building is affecting the customer.”

This highlights a common problem companies face when motivating their teams: Everyone needs to be on the same page. Building team cohesion when team members lack face-to-face interaction requires that the purpose anchoring the team together is easily understood and digestible. Everyone must recognize how their contributions add to the whole. Companies that do the extra work of communicating their purpose clearly, especially for engineers and developers, will reap the benefits.

Remote work isn’t for everyone, though. As Awarenow’s co-founder Alina Trigubenko mentioned, people who excel in these environments are “independent thinkers who can make their own decisions” with the “personality that can get the job done no matter where they are located.”

When you’re communicating with team members in different time zones, issues will pop up. And knowing you can trust your team members to get the job done no matter what is crucial to the team’s success. The trust factor will sustain the team for the long-haul. Big distributed teams that have an allure, like ConsenSys, have no trouble attracting top talent. What keeps people together, however, is the empowering autonomous environments where trust is a top priority.

“Most corporate environments don’t motivate people,” said Durlacher of ConsenSys. “People aren’t excited [by] climbing this superficial ladder. We’re good at getting talent because of our remote-first, decentralized environment that empowers people.”

And she’s right: The major challenges that are associated with remote-first work are merely opportunities waiting to be transformed into policies that empower employees to show up any way they like. As companies shift from rigid structures and adopt more distributed teams, the question is not how they will do this, but in what way will they accommodate the change.

The future is here, and as more of our work becomes automated and hyper-specialized, employers will look across the globe for talent to accomplish their business goals.

Bryant Galindo

Bryant Galindo is an awarenow coach, conflict resolution expert and co-founder of CollabsHQ. He works with startups to help them resolve co-founder disputes, create feedback processes for new managers, and create high-performing cultures of collaboration.

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